At The Brattle Film Notes, Kerry Fristoe writes about The Road Warrior and Lord Byron’s poem, “Darkness,” in “The Road Warrior or Mad Max and Lord Byron Walk into a Bar…”
Posted September 4, 2014
I don’t remember how it was I first came across Adam Adamant Lives!, though I suspect it was the culmination of a plot put into motion the day I was born, my sole purpose for existing being so that I might one day discover a British television show about a swashbuckling Edwardian gentleman adventurer who is frozen by his mortal enemy and revived in swingin’ sixties London, at which time he teams up with a hip young woman and resumes his life of derring-do and crime-fighting. It’s as if the creative team at the BBC sat down one day and thought, “Well, some day Keith Allison going to be born, and he’s going to want to see this show.”
That Adam Adamant is dressed in full Edwardian regalia, complete with cape and walking stick, makes no difference. It’s the London of mods and hippies and go-go kids, after all, and his anachronistic outfit is actually substantially more reserved than some of the sartorial outrageousness birthed from that era. And never mind that, after a one-episode period of adjustment (featuring the requisite scene of a dazed and confused Adam Adamant wandering into the street and almost being run over by a car), he’s not only adjusted to his new surroundings but has learned to drive, acquired himself a swank secret lair accessed through a secret door in a parking garage, and runs around London slashing ne’er-do-wells with his cane sword with the complete blessing of the police, MI5, and if need be, MI6. If these things concern you, Adam Adamant Lives! is not for you. It has no time for shoe-gazing and ennui and the alienation of a man out of time. After all, there’s adventures to be had! Criminals to be caught! Nefarious schemes to be defeated!
Adam Adamant Lives! was the BBC’s reaction to a number of things. Firstly, it was a jab at critic Mary Helen Lovejoy Whitehouse, who was beating the “television is a sign of our moral decay. Why can’t things be like they used to be?” horse. It was also an attempt to develop their own version of the lavish adventure series The Avengers. And it was an effort to come up with something other than the network’s big hit. The BBC’s fortunes were, at the time, largely invested in Doctor Who, and it’s not surprising that their answer to The Avengers would very closely resemble Doctor Who: a man in dandy Edwardian garb travels through time and battles villains in a black and white show with a fairly tiny budget. Originally planned as an adaptation of the old Sexton Blake stories, when the rights to that character did not come through, the BBC created their own character, cycling through an astounding number of deliciously terrible names (Cornelius Chance, Rupert De’Ath, Magnus Hawke, Dick Daring, Aurelian Winton, and most improbably, Darius Crud) before settling on Adam Adamant.
Similarities to Doctor Who didn’t stop with the time travel and the hero’s fashion. Adam Adamant Lives! was created by producer Verity Lambert and Sydney Newman, the two people largely responsible for creating Doctor Who, and writer Donald Cotton, who wrote the series’ pilot episode, “A Vintage Year for Scoundrels,” as well as two Doctor Who serials: The Myth Makers and The Gunfighters, both of which sought to make the show more humorous, neither of which star William Hartnell cared for, and neither of which are known to still exist. Given his taste for comedy and puns and playfulness, Cotton was probably a better fit for Adam Adamant Lives!, which pretty successfully mimicked the sly, tongue-in-cheek attitude of The Avengers. The Doctor Who connection didn’t end there. Future Second Doctor Patrick Troughton appeared in an episode, and the Third Doctor’s companions — first Jo Grant then the legendary Liz Sladen as Sarah Jane — were younger, hipper companions, perhaps thanks to the influence of Adam Adamant’s groovy sidekick, the tomboyish mod girl Georgina (Juliet Harmer).
As Adam Adamant, Gerald Harper is infectiously charming without being cutesy or manic — something that plagued more recent incarnations of Doctor Who (though David Tenant was born to play Adam Adamant in a reboot of the series). At times he’s ruthless, sometimes old-fashioned in his attitudes, but always as quick with a wink and a smile as he is with a sword cane pointed in the direction of a typical “well, well, well, wot ‘ave we ‘ere?” British street thug. His Doctor Who-style companions, swingin’ Georgina Jones (who grew up on stories about Adam Adamant and his mysterious disappearance in 1902) and former carnival worker Jack May (William E. Simms) make for an entertaining trio of amateur adventurers who, despite being a carny, a go-go club girl, and a guy from 1902, are given free rein to pursue whatever case might cross their path.
Measured against even the early episodes of The Avengers, Adam Adamant Lives! is a decidedly more ramshackle, small-scale production — but it also has a boundless energy, a shaggy dog charisma that overcomes the budgetary restraints. It is tremendous fun, even during its weakest moments. Original intentions of using the show to explore shifts in morality from the Edwardian era to the hippie era never come to more than superficial lip service, as the series and its star are more interesting in being dashing and slinging zingers at the audience. The series only lasted two seasons and was classified as a “near miss,” The BBC’s version of Hammer’s eventual Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter.
It’s a hit for me, however, and a substantial one at that. Campy in retrospect, but never mean-spirited, and always enjoyable. And who can help but love Kathy Kirby’s Shirley Bassey/Goldfinger style theme song, which is just fantastic! And best of all, it features perhaps my all-time favorite type of character: the gentleman hero who has adventures not because he is predestined, not because he is motivated by revenge or forced to by circumstance; but rather, because he wants to have adventures. He wants to fight the bad guys and cut a swathe through the underworld with his trusty cane-sword simply because it is something to do, and the right thing to do.